By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 13, 2009)
He’s the punk-tinged, carhorn-voiced UK songwriter who emerged from the original 1970s pack of Stiff Records artists (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury et al) with an appealing catalog of new wave pop records that applied a bit of Sex Pistols sneer to some whimsically big-hearted songs of love and losing and just getting by — including “(I’d Go) The Whole Wide World,” an irresistible little anthem of hope and yearning that’s been covered by everybody from The Monkees to Paul Westerberg to Will Ferrell, who crooned it in the film Stranger Than Fiction.
She’s the resolutely indie singer-songwriter whose experiences in such hipster-pedigreed NYC bands as The Last Roundup and The Shams didn’t entirely prepare the rest of the world for acclaimed 1990s albums like Diary of a Mod Housewife and Til the Wheels Fall Off — a set of observations that encapsulate the life of a forever-struggling, intellectually curious, infinitely resourceful single mom with a plainspeaking emotional honesty and infectious good humor.
Strange things happen every day in both real life and showbiz, but when the world awoke one day to the realization that Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby had formed not just a professional but a personal partnership — to the point of marrying and relocating to the rural French countryside — it was a jaw-dropping moment for music snobs, and a chance for members of what once seemed mutually exclusive fanbases to meet and mingle.
Hardcore followers of each artist might be able to tell you that this alliance was somehow inevitable — both Eric and Amy had released more recent music that was rougher-hewn and lower-fi in nature; dabbling in country and psychedelia at the edges and shot through with the bumps and bruises of their latterday ups and downs (Rigby had by that point segued from Nashville-based songwriting hopeful to a part-time musician working subsistence temp jobs in Cleveland). But when the album Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby appeared domestically earlier this year (on the reconstituted Stiff label, yet), anyone expecting an acoustic-folkie song cycle of faith and redemption and sunshine regained would have been, if not disappointed, then delightfully confounded.
Apart from a raggedly rootsy Johnny Cash cover, the partnership’s debut recording is a merrily messy affair that offers up a kitchen-sink clatter of battered old electronic keyboards, spacey vocals, FX-laden guitars and even an art-gallery sound collage. There’s enough of Amy (”Men in Sandals”) and Eric (”Another Drive-In Saturday”) for old fans to grab onto here, but there’s also a new, third personality at work — a happy byproduct of a lovely union. It’s simultaneously Rigby’s strangest record and Eric’s most grounded recent outing.
It also sounds like a marriage — or like what marriage could be if we all worked really hard at not working so hard at it. It gives sonic substance to the little surprises that can still occur in the longest-running relationships; the ways in which two people can intersect and create experiences that can’t be duplicated under any other conditions. It even makes you want to tell your person you love them.
Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby pilot their Astrovan to the Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park for a tourstop this Thursday evening, July 16. Red Bank oRBit spoke to Wreckless and Rigby as they barreled down the highway to a gig in North Carolina — first one, then the other, although we’re presenting the conversation here as a mash-up of sorts. Read on.
AMY RIGBY: I’m sorry, but we’ve been up and on the road since 8:30, driving ourselves to Raleigh, where we have a house concert. Right now Eric’s behind the wheel and I’m back here talking to you; we’ll switch later on, do a pull-over to change drivers.
The last time you came through this part of New Jersey was a house party of sorts — one of the Concerts in the Studio events at Costanzo Photography in Freehold, with the casseroles and everything…
AMY: Yeah, I remember that. It was a lot of fun! We’ve been doing house party sort of events here and there, and it’s a great way to introduce yourself to the fans — it would really be great if the house party thing took hold in England. Houses are generally smaller there, though.
But so are people, compared to what you see here in the US.
AMY: Oh no, they’ve got the obesity thing going on over there every bit as much.
Now Eric, the last time we saw you round these parts was quite a while ago.
WRECKLESS ERIC: I played Asbury Park in the Fast Lane in 1979, and again in 1980. And I remember the bowling alley! A friend met me on the steps of the bowling alley and asked me why I was sitting there, and I told ‘em it was because it’s got the cheapest beer in town, apparently — you’d play over at the one place and you’d be doin’ your drinkin’ next door at the other.
That’s exactly right. If you ever wanted to be able to meet your favorite performers, they could all be found before the show at the bowling alley lounge.
ERIC: Another thing I remember about the place is somebody telling me, if a guy called Bruce wants to get up on stage with you and play a couple’a numbers, you let ‘em do it. I didn’t know from Bruce then, I mean, Bruce who?
Well, he could be quite pesky that way in those days from what I understand. Now another thing that I and a great many other people are struggling to comprehend is the circumstances by which you two got together in the first place — to you of course I’m sure it all seems perfectly organic; a natural progression. But to everybody else it was just, you know, completely out of the blue one day, Amy Rigby, Wreckless Eric — wow. Now, one very romantic way of looking at it is that a song played a role in bringing you together — “The Whole Wide World.”
AMY: It was kind of like that for me; pretty unreal in a sense — I had been playing “The Whole Wide World” for a while and like a lot of girls I loved it. But I’m not his stalker; it’s not like I had his pictures up on my wall!
ERIC: As far as the whole thing makin’ sense to people, well, why wouldn’t it really? Our voices go together well I think, except of course mine’s twice as loud! Y’know, maybe I’m the male Amy Rigby.
But there have been steps along the way to me and Amy getting together. There was a time when I went truly underground; like being in a deep freeze, or like when somebody leaves the room and they cease to exist. After the things I did with The Len Bright Combo, I did a couple’a lo-fi albums, then the 12 O’Clock Stereoalbum.
And with Amy’s records, the first three were much more shiny and produced, and then with Karaoke, Bungalow Hi, you could see that we were each slowly moving toward a point where we could really work together.
Even so, the end result remains unpredictable — the cover might suggest a stripped-down folkie sort of setting, with that woodsy scene, but there’s some fun experimentation on it. More than a few curveballs to keep everyone off balance once again.
ERIC: The problem is branding, as it’s called — people doing, or expected to be doing exactly what they’re known for. I remember having to deal with record company people, playin’ ‘em my new songs and being told that they don’t hear another “Whole Wide World” in there. Well, what’s the point of doing what you’ve already done? Amy gives me a weird American influence that’s just completely outside my orbit, and I’ve got this weird English quality — well, I don’t know wot I give her, actually!
It’s just a nice challenge, you know — something new and inspirational for both of us.
The whole thing to me is as intriguing to contemplate as Elvis Costello and Diana Krall — or Nick Lowe and Carlene Carter, to use two prior examples of you guys from the old Stiff Records gang hooking up with American female singers.
ERIC: Oh, it’s not like Nick and Carlene. As far as Elvis and the American jazz woman, I guess that’s been a good thing for him — he’s actually been turnin’ into a nice person for once; I can hardly believe it myself.
AMY: It’s good to keep people guessing; what we’ve been doing is kind of like a side project, but we don’t want it to become stale. It’s already confusing enough to people when we try to convince them that we actually play together — you know, it’s not like I come out and do a set with my band, and then Eric does a set — it’s just us.
I’ve come across some talk of you guys expanding the act into a trio with a drummer…or now that your daughter’s got her own band, might there be any chance of doing a weird family act sort of thing in the near future?
AMY: We don’t have any plans to invite another person into this relationship! And my daughter was just in Atlanta; we played Atlanta and caught up with her there — but she’s going to be going to New Orleans to go to school, which is pretty exciting.
ERIC: I did get to go bowling with Amy’s daughter, and it was gutterballs all the time, but she was able to coach me into throwin’ a strike.
So your daughter’s down in New Orleans, and you guys are still based for now in France?
AMY: Yeah, and it’s so different from anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Not much of a city economy where we are — it’s either playing music or picking apples! There’s a local bar that we play at a couple of times each year, but by and large things are very slow in France. It just takes a while for anything to happen — you have to convince people to even put some music on in the first place.
But we’re touring off and on all the time. We came to America in June, and we’re always going to the UK to play — we’ll be back in England in September. Eric’s like a citizen of the world; he can be a resident of anywhere in the European Union.
What’s it like working with someone like Eric who’s up into all that old-school gear; the vacuum-tube technology and vintage electronics?
AMY: Eric is a real scavenger; he’s got a collection of old keyboards — but it’s been a fun experience, just seeing what he does with all this stuff; all the tricks that he knows.
ERIC: You know, people used to say I was some kind of a Luddite, but the truth is I’ll use any sort of technology — and most people can’t fuckin’ use what they’ve got. I’ll work with computers, y’know, I’ll work with cassette decks if that’s what’s around — it’s all only as good as the people who are using it anyway.